Time in the desert – What I learned while waiting on God
A little while ago I was having lunch with Jamin Goggin, one of the authors of Beloved Dust and Pastor of Spiritual Formation and retreats at Saddleback. We were discussing my somewhat depressing and frustrating time that I was going through as a pastor, at time we referred to as ‘the desert’. He said [paraphrasing]: “No one romanticizes time spent in the desert when they’re in it. Being in the desert is painful, exhausting, and frustrating. It’s only later that we can look back and say – ‘Oh, I see what God did there’.” I loved this refreshing admission. I had been given all kinds of ‘advice’ and christianisms on being in the desert, but not one person was really acknowleding that yes, it’s not pleasant at all.
It’s hard to have 1 Peter 1:6–7 , and James 1:2–4 in your head when you’re in the desert. Both talk about being joyful of going through trials, and that persevering through it gives your faith a boost. In hindsight this is absolutely true. Call it refinement, perseverance, making you stronger – whatever – but it’s true: if you can make it through trials and temptations your faith will indeed be stronger for it. But how did I get in the desert? How can you persevere, what does God expect from you, and are there some common things that God is looking for during this time? Here’s what I’ve learned about my time in the desert, and some Biblical examples to go along with it.
1) It started with me. This is probably the most important part of getting through the desert time. It’s tempting to think that something ‘just happened’ to us, but it’s almost always a result of a decision we’ve made. Many of my ‘desert’ times came as a result of a decision I had made, and the anxiety of not knowing what was next. Sometimes it was a ministry position change, a major decision I had just made, or a sin I had committed against someone – but for sure it was something I did. When God told Moses (See Numbers 13 & 14) that the generation must die off before they reached the promised land, it was because of the people’s actions, not an arbitrary punishment by God.
2) It requires a dramatic reation. There are lots of times in the Bible where something tragic or blasphemous happens where priests or kings (See 2 Samuel 3:31–32) tear their robes, put ash on themselves and fall to the ground in anguish. In our culture of ‘its not how many times you fall down, but how many you get up’, or ‘I can pull through this’, we can be tempted to have a stiff upper lip about it. I bided my time and kept saying to myself ‘God is teaching me something through this… I just need to wait to see what it is’. What I really needed (and ended up doing) was to let my emotions in on what was going on. I got angry, sorrowful, joyful and finally repetant in dramatic fashion. God is really looking at our hearts through this time – will we be prideful, or will we seek Him earnestly?
3) It removes our power. For me personally, waiting is the hardest thing God ever asks me to do. I’m a doer, a vision caster, and a person who wants to know what’s next, so to wait really gnaws at me. In our time in the desert, God really wants us to abide and wait on Him though. Often times He’s simply trying to tell us to rely on His strength and not ours, to sit on the sidelines for a while and watch Him work (see 2 Chronicles 20:14–23) instead of trying to make things happen ourselves. Paradoxically, this is incredibly freeing but also remarkably frustrating – we are shown what little power we actually have, but are built up in knowing that God will ultimately work out His plans.
Have you ever been ‘in the desert’? Was it beneficial in hindsight?